The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Luis Stevenson, 1886
I LOVE THIS BOOK. If you have never read it, go read it three times. If you haven’t read it in the past month, go reread it right now.
Ok, we’re back from reading Jekyll and Hyde? Excellent. Isn’t it perfect? There are so few truly great horror stories from this time period, but J and H has it all. The writing is atmospheric and spooky like an old house in a horror flick. The plot is intriguing and well-conceived. This is not one of those early horror stories that seems great, because later artists repurposed and improved the concept. Jekyll and Hyde is an excellent piece of writing, especially thematically. The allegory is clear, but complicated enough that many possible interpretations are valid. Most impressively, Stevenson maintains a level of focus throughout the novella that wordy Victorians with their 600 page tomes rarely achieved. Every line is purposeful. Stevenson continually pings little flecks of meaning at the reader that reinforce the mood and the theme.
I love how Stevenson hides nuggets like “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” in the second sentence of the story, which is merely introducing the lawyer, Mr. Utterson. I get a little shiver from that fragment, because I know something not eminently human will appear later in the tale. So clever. I can’t handle how great that detail is. You know what, Nabokov wrote that good readers “fondle the details” of good fiction; so let’s do that. You don’t need a summary of the characters or plot of this one. It’s too famous for that. Let’s get into some details.
Utterson is worried about his friend Jekyll’s connection to the odious Mr. Hyde, but does not want to pry because, as his friend Mr. Enfield states it “You start a question and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden and the family have to change their name.” Such a quaint way to introduce the idea that proper, refined, well-regarded families are harboring dark secrets. Secrets that their friends would rather not know. Gentlemen are willingly looking away from the dark side of their fellows’ natures.
The maid states that moments before she witnesses Hyde committing a violent murder, she was enjoying a lovely moonlit night and “never had she felt more at peace with all men or felt more kindly of the world.” I just love that. By transforming himself into Hyde, by indulging the evil tendencies of his nature, Jekyll violates not just laws of nature, but the social contract. This romantic maid has her sense of peace and goodness permanently disturbed by witnessing a moment of pure evil. Jekyll has broken her faith in mankind, just as he has broken the unspoken compact shared by Victorians to repress their forbidden desires.
It seems so appropriate that this allegory about repression should come near the end of the Victorian Era. It fits nicely with our image of Victorians as tight-lipped, pleasureless and obsessed with respectability. Jekyll is driven to create his alter-ego, because he has never been able to reconcile his desire for pleasure with his need to maintain a gentile public face. He was already living a double life and felt a “morbid sense of shame” at his secret pleasures. Sex and drugs, right? I’m not sure what else it could be. Gambling, perhaps. General drunken carousing. I guess that’s beside the point. Jekyll has a dual nature, but feels that “both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I labored, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” Oh, there’s so much in there. I love that Stevenson wrote “eye of day” rather than “light of day” to emphasize the watchful eye of society. He suggests that to get along in society one had to divide one’s true self into one acceptable public aspect and one hidden sinner. Go ahead and pause to think about the aspects of your true nature you’ve had to hide away so that you could feel accepted. Really, the duality of public versus private is more interesting than that of good versus evil. What we hide from the eye of day is rarely a desire to harm others. Call me naïve, but I think there’s enough room in society to indulge self-serving tendencies, that the part of ourselves we hide is not destructive or evil. What we hide is a failure or lack of desire to fulfill a role society wants from us. We hide emotions that others don’t want to see. Anger, depression, not wanting to do our gender roles. That’s the secret self we hide. Not evil. I know my Mr. Hyde doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s just a vulnerable Goth who doesn’t want to wear a bra. I think. Anyway, I didn’t mean to spin off in that direction. There’s just so much scope in this novella.
One last little thought. I appreciate Mr. Hyde being smaller and younger than Dr. Jekyll. The evil side of Jekyll’s nature is not as developed as his full self. So, it is shorter and younger. That’s such a great sci-fi-esque detail. So good.
You might like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:
- You like a good horror story.
- You like a good story of any variety.
You might not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if:
- I cannot think of a reason.
Final thoughts: Is it a cautionary tale about the peril of letting your dark side out or is it about the danger of squashing an aspect of your true self? I dunno. Both. It’s everything. So good.